Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What They Didn't Tell Me On My Wedding Day

I recently met an engaged couple who will live thousands of miles apart until their wedding day. They explained how it will be difficult when they get married, but they assured me that if they didn't think they could handle it, they wouldn't be getting married.

That's when I realized that everyone thinks this as a new couple, that we're invincible.We think, Of course we can handle it. Sure, it's going to be hard. But we did our pre-marriage counseling. We dated a long time. We weathered painful situations and emerged stronger because of them. We communicate well. We won't make the mistakes of our friends and families. We're good. We're the exception. We're special.  

As a young engaged couple, several people warned us about the difficulty of marriage.

Marriage is hard, they'd say. It takes a lot of work.

I believed them on some level, as much as I could. Kind of. The problem is that no one knows what it actually means. It's vague and unhelpful. It's more of a threat or a warning than helpful advice. 

I remember the first time I thought, Wow, this marriage thing IS hard, just like they said. We were about 6 months into our marriage. I don't recall the details of the argument, but I remember exactly where we were sitting and how I felt when that first feeling of doubt and panic washed over me.

After 9 years of marriage, I remember my just-turned-22-year-old self on my wedding day. I was confident. I was happy. I felt ready. Only, I wish someone had been bluntly honest with me about a few things.
I wish someone had told me that no couple is invincible or untouchable. Human beings are susceptible to loneliness, depression, anger, miscommunication, assumptions, misunderstandings, and irrational thoughts. I suppose someone may have said this to me in some form. If they did, it felt inapplicable to me.

It's dangerous to believe you're immune to problems. The number of friends and family members who have experienced painful divorces tells me this is true. We all think somehow our situation will be the exception. Therein lies the danger.

Marriage IS hard, but not because a couple will fight over who washes the dishes, or how to wash the dishes, or when to wash the dishes. Arguments are expected and normal and can be healthy. Those are the comical honeymoon stage arguments that we laugh about later. 

I wish someone had told me it's hard because no one can predict the unexpected pain, the losses, the mistakes, the impatient rash words. No one can predict how simple decisions can turn into life-altering events. 

People erroneously think big life changes will help "fix" relationship problems: having a baby, moving, buying a house, getting a new job. These don't fix problems, they create a new lens with which to amplify already existing problems.

Damaging words can't be part of the vocabulary. I know couples who toss around the ominous d-word (divorce) in arguments like a ping-pong ball. They might as well sign the papers now. That word can't exist. Half of all marriages end in divorce. It's too real a word within too close a reach to be used in any capacity. 

I wish someone had told me to focus on my own problems and not so much on my spouse. I once had a counselor tell me that the problem with popular marriage advice books is that they focus on spouses fulfilling each other's needs. Though there is validity in finding ways to love your spouse in a way they connect to, it's not the whole picture. If your marriage is not fulfilling, these books say, it's because your spouse isn't speaking to you in your "love language" or isn't filling your "love tank." The responsibility of your happiness, therefore, lies on your spouse. This is unfair and unrealistic for both, and can lead to looking to other people or things to replace what is lacking.

I wish someone had told me that "for better or for worse" could be worse before it gets better, but it can get better. There is hope in all this. Couples who have weathered unimaginable storms do survive. They can come out stronger, closer, and wiser. It requires hard work and commitment. It requires humility and grace. It requires waking up every morning with the firm choice to go forward together, letting go of yesterday. For better or for worse. In good times and in bad. By the grace of God.

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